The Model 1887 was the first truly successful repeating shotgun. Its lever-action design was chosen at the behest of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, best known at the time as manufacturers of lever-action firearms such as the Winchester model 1873. Designer John Browning suggested that a pump-action would be much more appropriate for a repeating shotgun, but Winchester management's position was that, at the time, the company was known as a "lever-action firearm company", and felt that their new shotgun must also be a lever-action for reasons of brand recognition. Browning responded by designing a breech-loading, rolling block lever-action. To Winchester's credit, however, they later introduced a Browning designed pump-action shotgun known as the Model 1893 (an early production version of the model 1897), after the introduction of smokeless powder.
Shotgun shells at the time used black powder as a propellant, and so the Model 1887 shotgun was designed and chambered for less powerful black powder 12-gauge shotshells, with a 10-gauge chambering being offered soon afterwards. It was soon realized that the action on the M1887 was not strong enough to handle early smokeless powder shotshells, and so a redesign resulted in the stronger Winchester Model 1901 10-gauge only. No 12-gauge chambering was offered, as Winchester did not want the Model 1901 to compete with their successful 12-gauge Model 1897 pump-action shotgun.
Although a technically sound gun design, the market for lever-action shotguns waned considerably, as John Browning had predicted, after the introduction of the Winchester 1897 and other contemporary pump-action shotguns; Model 1887 production totaled 64,855 units between 1887 and 1901, with 79,455 Model 1901 shotguns being manufactured before it was discontinued in 1920.